Thursday, February 04, 2010


Let me be the first to say it. Rabbi Sara Hurwitz. There. That wasn’t so hard was it?

Rabbi Avi Weiss has ordained the first female Orthodox rabbi. As I have said in the past I do not see anything halachicly wrong with it since today’s version of Semicha has absolutely no basis in Halacha.

It is recognition that one has studied and mastered certain sections of the Shuchan Aruch, knows how to learn Gemarah, has successfully studied it along with Rishonim and Poskim for many years, has exemplary Midos, and will faithfully promote and beautify the ideals of Torah.

I’m sure that all of this applies to Sara Hurwitz. I'm sure she has the requisite character and has passed all the tests one takes to become a rabbi.

But is being an Orthodox rabbi only about the letter of Halacha? ...or the recognition of achievement in learning Torah?

As I have said before - I am opposed to it. Judaism is about much more than Halacha. Tradition is important too. I believe it is too much of a break from normative Judaism - even if it is technically not against Halacha. Tradition should not be tampered with unless there is a Hora’as Shah. Hora'as Shah is when there is some over-riding current reason that would undermine the Jewish people either physically or spiritually if a change in tradition is not made. I do not see ordaining women as a Hora’as Shah.

Hora’as Shah did change traditional Judaism not long ago. And it was a woman who did it. Sara Scheinirer innovated the wide spread formal Jewish education for women known as Beis Yaakov that we have today.

A woman learning any Torah aside from what she needed to perform the Mitzvos properly was considered forbidden until then. But it is now almost universally accepted. Why the change? Rabbinic giants like the Chafetz Chaim were convinced by her that if women were not permitted to study Torah, they would become irreligious.

They were increasingly becoming exposed to secular values and lifestyles by attending secular schools and universities - previously off limits to Jews. There was a real danger of masses of Jewish women going off the Derech. It was a time to act and change the paradigm.

I do not see anything even remotely close to that here that would require us to promote the idea of female rabbis.

Then there is the issue of communal leadership known as Serarah. There are Halachic issues with women assuming the role of community leaders which is traditionally a man’s role. That there are so few of them in Jewish history shows that it was the exception rather than the rule.

That said, I see absolutely no problem with allowing or even encouraging women who are so inclined to fully study all the material normally required for Semicha, and to grant her some form of recognition in successfully mastering it. Perhaps a degree system paralleling universities - with Bachelors, Masters, and Doctorates awarded for level of achievement. The problem is not in what is learned or in recognizing the achievement but in granting a title that is about much more than recognition of achievement in learning Torah.

Women have specific roles in Judaism - much of it shaped by Halacha. Most Mitzvos are required of both men and women. Certain Mitzvos are required only of women and others only of men. Although Halacha permits and even encourages women to participate in Mitzvos not mandated to them, it does not view doing them as their part and parcel of their primary function. The reason woman are not required to do certain Mitzvos required of men is because their role as women exempts them.

The role of a rabbi today is mostly that of a pulpit rabbi in Shul. That is what most working rabbis do. They are involved in Shuls. Shuls are designed for men. This is where a Minyan is made so that Tefilah is elevated. Only men may constitute a Minyan. Women may not be counted towards it no matter how much they know. For a woman to be a rabbi in this circumstance seems to be at best counter intuitive. It is extremely awkward to say the least for the leader of a Shul to sit unseen behind a Mechitza.

Yes there are many aspects to the role of a rabbi in a Shul that a woman may do and do it as effectively as a man. Such as pastoral counseling. But the day in day out bread and butter of Shuls by participating in the Minayn itself is a Halachic impossibility. A woman who stands together with 10 men in a Shul invalidates the Minyan.

I can think of no good reason to change the paradigm and issue this title to a woman other than to undermine tradition and break new ground. What is gained by giving a woman Semicha as it is defined today? Why is Semicha better than say, a PhD in Halacha or Talmud? Or a PhD in pastoral counseling? Frankly if I needed it - I would sooner see a PhD in pastoral counseling than a rabbi.

Intended or not, the idea of a female rabbi has the taint of feminist egalitarianism – which is designed to equalize men and woman in all aspects of Judaism and eliminate the very idea of roles.

Rabbi Avi Weiss apparently has none of these concerns since he clearly has stated that he conferred Semicha upon Sara Hurwitz. And yet he dances around the title as though it were a bigger issue than giving her Semicha in the first palce..

He now wants to call her Rabbah. He claims that it is the feminine version of the word rabbi – which is masculine. I’m sorry, but that is ridiculous. The word rabbi is an English word. English words are gender neutral. The source of the word may be the Hebrew word Rebbe or Rav. There he may have an argument. But in English - rabbi is the correct title for man and woman alike. She is an Orthodox rabbi. Not a Maharat. And not a Rabbah.

If she has Semicha it is insulting to call her anything else. Rabbi Weiss wants to change the paradigm? OK. I challenge him to go all the way, call her rabbi, and drop this ridiculous title.